Bel canto belles: Remigio and Devia in Bologna's Norma
Courtesy Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Rumors that Mariella Devia was thinking of singing Norma had been going around for a number of years, and her occasional concert performances of "Casta Diva" only heightened the sense of expectation. The amazement aroused by her role debut on April 13 in this most difficult of roles at Bologna's Teatro Comunale was nevertheless immense. In this sensibly intimate setting — where some of the greatest sopranos have been heard in this opera, including the creator of the title role, Giuditta Pasta, as well as Maria Malibran and Giulia Grisi — this onetime soprano leggiero sustained Bellini's cantabile lines (uncut) with absolutely steady tone and prodigious reserves of breath, brought respectable finish to the florid measures (only the trills sounded halfhearted) and delivered the all-important recitatives with unexpected weightiness of tone (without obscuring diction). Her voice sounded consistently attractive in timbre in legato singing (a reminder of how skillfully Bellini wrote for the voice) and acquired no trace of hardness in declamation. All of this represented a surely unprecedented achievement for a sixty-five-year-old singer — an artist born in the year Maria Callas made her debut as Norma in Florence — who has been performing relatively heavy roles for at least a decade and a half. Although she is a graceful actress and a deeply serious musician, Devia cannot match the tragic depth achieved in this opera by the finest dramatic sopranos — and one had to suspend disbelief somewhat when Norma was contemplating murdering her children or confronting Pollione in Act II. (Devia doesn't really have a chest voice.) But there was so much theatrical dignity and musical beauty to her portrayal that the endless ovations during and after the performance were nothing more than she deserved.
The rest of the cast was not unworthy. Carmela Remigio is an experienced Adalgisa, whose sleek beauty makes Pollione's infidelity entirely credible. Since she is a soprano, the duets could easily be performed in the original keys, revealing her effortless upper range. Her voice, though generically pleasing, is not a particularly colorful instrument, perhaps as a result of a technique suggesting an excessive focus on placement rather than attack.
Aquiles Machado is perhaps the best Pollione before the public today. He looked handsome indeed in Giovanna Buzzi's costumes; his voice is virile and wide-ranging, and he laudably sang the opening cavatina as written. The rather cavernous sound of the Russian bass Sergey Artamonov (Oroveso) was less appropriate for Bellini, although it was interesting to have a chance to hear him sing the F-major aria "Norma il predisse" that Wagner composed for this opera in Paris in 1839: it inevitably sounded a little out of place, but with strong contributions from the chorus and brass section of the Teatro Comunale Orchestra, it proved surprisingly potent in effect.
Conductor Michele Mariotti had obviously thought carefully about the score, offering the more extended version of the Act I finale and the (sung) major-key coda to the "Guerra, Guerra" chorus, but Bellini is not perhaps the composer best suited to Mariotti's temperament. Although he didn't cover the voices, the gentle, sylvan beauty of the composer's inspiration in some scenes was rarely in evidence. This was also true of the staging conceived — more than two decades ago — by director Federico Tiezzi and designer Pier Paolo Bisleri, with a number of backdrops painted by the late Italian artist Mario Schifano. It is a production of some elegance that views this tragedy of Gauls and Romans partly from a sophisticated (and decidedly urban) early-nineteenth-century aesthetic. However, the stylized action that resulted proved well-suited to the sensibility of the singers onstage.
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